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Be a Rule Breaker

The life of Lilly Pulitzer can teach small business owners the value of catering to a specific market, innovating, and fostering connections.
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Fashion designer Lilly Pulitzer, who died Sunday at 81, had a success story as flashy and bright as the dresses she designed for Palm Beach society.

Pulitzer was the daughter of a Standard Oil man, so her story is not exactly the rags to riches script of many other entrepreneurs. But the lessons other small business owners can learn from her are still powerful and important. Yes, her gold-plated connections and family's deep pockets were important to her success, but so too was her drive, imagination, and love of what she did. In that way Pulitzer was no different than most entrepreneurs who disrupt a market.

"Lilly Pulitzer was an innovator and also someone who worked outside of the [typical] fashion systems," says Patricia Mears, deputy director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York.

Pulitzer had a unique idea--spawned by a stained blouse--and pushed it at the right time, just as fashions were changing in the U.S., Mears says. Pulitzer understood intuitively that silhouettes were becoming simpler, and that they could be used as canvases for bold and bright patterns, Mears says. In so doing, she turned Palm Beach into a new center for fashion.

The annals of entrepreneurship are strewn with similarly unlikely success tales. There's Diane von Furstenberg, whose wrap-around dress was an overnight senastion and defined yet another fashion moment, and roadside inn proprietress Ruth Wakefield who created the Toll House chocolate chip cookie--and loads of new business for herself and Nestle's--when she crumbled up semi-sweet chocolate and stuck it in a plain dough cookie on a whim, and Bette Nesmith Graham, the out of work secretary who created liquid paper and white out and built that in to multi-million dollar business, to name a few.

The tale goes that, in her 20s and recovering from a nervous breakdown, Pulitzer ran an orange juice stand off Palm Beach's main shopping street, just to have something to do. Dismayed by the chronic juice stains on her blouse, she and a friend designed some simple dresses in bright tropical colors that hid the smears. She'd often hang a couple extra dresses in the orange juice stand, which caught the eyes of her society customers. Pretty soon she was selling more dresses than orange juice. And so the Pulitzer look was born. "This really was the birth of resort chic apparel," says Jane Schoenborn, a spokeswoman for Lilly Pulitzer. "People came to Palm Beach and realized they needed a different wardrobe, and her look became a signature for what that meant."

Pulitzer built a company that at its peak had $60 million in revenues. Though she closed the company in 1984, her brand was subsequently acquired and is owned today by Oxford Industries, an apparel design and marketing concern based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

While Pulitzer's saga is undoubtedly born of a certain time in history, "if you can find the opportunity where the market is and capture the trend of the moment, overnight success is definitely still possible," says Lakshmi Balachandra, assistant professor of Blank Center for Entrepreneurship at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Unlike Pulitzer, entrepreneurs who come from less affluent backgrounds, and who bootstrap their own companies, have much more to lose, and less flexibility, Mears says.

Still, defining your market is key, says Daymond John, chief executive and co-founder of the hip hop brand For Us. By Us. And though his own story is similar to Pulitzer's, John says his success certainly wasn't immediate.

John says in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was no one creating products that defined the look of exploding hip hop culture in New York. So he started making his own hats and other clothing, and selling it on Queens street corners. Though John helped create the hip hop clothing market, designing baggy jeans and knit polos and Ts embroidered with characters like Fat Albert as opposed to a WASPy polo player, he says it was close to a decade before he felt his business was secure and successful. At its peak in the late 1990s, FUBU had about $350 million in revenues.

After years of relentless, hard work, "you ask yourself, am I doing this right? It is very, very hard," John says.

Today, the Internet and social media make it easier for entrepreneurs to get the word out about their businesses, but it also makes it much easier for hundreds, thousands, even millions of people to catch wind of your idea and rip it off.

"Twenty or 30 years ago, if you had a great idea you worked hard at it and you put it out in the world, and it progressed and you could potentially have a great business," John says. "Now everyone does a 'me-too.'"

But some building blocks are timeless. Abiding principles like paying attention to customers, giving them what they want, and filling a need, will separate winners from losers, John says.

That also reflects Pulitzer's message. "So many people have a connection through the brand and through the print to her story as the irreverent rule breaker who created a business," Schoenborn says.

IMAGE: AP
Last updated: Apr 9, 2013

JEREMY QUITTNER | Staff Writer | Staff Writer, Inc. and Inc.com

Jeremy Quittner is a staff writer for Inc. magazine and Inc.com. He previously covered technology for American Banker and entrepreneurship for BusinessWeek.




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